Rock Climber Chelsea Griffie Inspires Youth
Chelsea Griffie's life wouldn't be the same if it weren't for her determination to follow her childhood dreams. Chicago, where she was raised, lacked the mountains she craved, so she left to find them. Her pursuit of an outdoor lifestyle led her to excel in rock climbing and backpacking, which landed her in the hotbed of both — Yosemite. In 2001, she became the first African American woman to climb El Capitan.
Her passion for the outdoors then led her to work with youth in California cities. From 2006 to 2011, she was the program director of Bay Area Wilderness Training (BAWT), which teaches adult trip leaders how to safely guide outdoor excursions for kids and also provides them with gear.
With her inner child's determination still driving, she brought the BAWT model to Los Angeles, where became founder and executive director of Los Angeles Wilderness Training (LAWT). Just before heading into the field for a five-day Wilderness Leadership Training course, Chelsea answered a few of our questions on her accomplishments and future goals.
Sierra: How did you become fascinated with the mountains and camping?
Chelsea Griffie: The truth is, I’m not totally certain myself. My mom was a nurse, and we went to the Girl Scout camp. As a little kid — I was probably a teenager, I knew I wanted more. I knew I wanted more mountains and backpacking. And then two things on TV — mind you, this was a long time ago — were Grizzly Adams and Escape to Witch Mountain. For my first camping experience, I went on a solo motorcycling trip and I couldn’t convince anyone else to go with me. My first night I didn’t bring a sleeping pad because I thought those were for wimps. I quickly learned I was a wimp and got one the next day.
CG: I actually started climbing when I was on vacation in Brazil. We were in Rio, and one of my traveling companions had been climbing, but I went by myself to Pão de Açúcar, which is "the Sugarloaf" in English, and climbed a 5.4 in my sneakers. Then I took a tram down and thought, "Oh, well that was fun."
Sierra: Mention “Yosemite climbers” and I think of dirtbags living out of their vans and making 5.14 climbs look easy. What do you think of, having been one?
CG: I actually had a place there! And quite frankly, in Yosemite it’s kind of hard to live out of a van. The park rangers there are quite draconian about it and make it pretty hard. I have the same kind of dirtbag picture in my mind after having done it myself — and "dirtbag" isn’t an insult. A lot of people who aren’t climbers think "dirtbag" is yucky. I would definitely say they are creative, smart, outgoing people. And pretty fun to talk to. Even the ones who are superfamous, they’re so approachable.
CG: To tell the truth, when I did it, I didn’t think it was that big of a deal. I just wanted to be competent at as many concessions of climbing as possible. It was just a thing you did. What I did wasn’t even that big a deal; it was just, "oh yeah, I should get up this thing a couple times." It’s kind of weird because it’s one of those things that I didn’t brag about, but just recently, actually, I googled it and found someone who was claiming it in 2003. I was like. "Wait a minute!" Just because I didn’t brag about it, it was like it didn’t happen.
Sierra: What has been one of the most rewarding experiences from working with BAWT and LAWT?
CG: How women of color have realized that they could be strong leaders just by the fact that I led them. One woman in particular, who I have co-instructed with a couple of times now and is my co-instructor for the Women of Color trip in August, did not realize what a solid outdoor leader she could be. In that respect, I see my role as much like the Wizard of Oz. I might teach a bit, but I'm also there to remind folks of what they had all along; they just didn't see it. Elizabeth founded the nonprofit organization Banteay Srei, which works with Southeast Asian girls in Oakland who have been, or are close to being, sexually exploited. She is not the program director at the moment, but when she was, she would tell me that sometimes when she took girls on dayhikes, they would tell her that they just turned their first trick.
Sierra: Climbing obviously changed your life. Do you ever wonder how you’ve had a hand in life-changing moments of youth through BAWT and LAWT?
CG: In some respect, yes, because I was a program director for BAWT. The way it’s designed is to train adults who take youth out, and they rent gear from us. I remember hearing about one kid who did a snowshoe trip, and the adult had rented the snowshoes from BAWT. The kid asked the leader if he could borrow his cellphone, and the guy was like, "What’s going on? Is something wrong?" And he said, "No, I just want to call my dad and tell him I had the best day ever."
Sierra: What goals are you hoping to accomplish next?
CG: I’m actually on the team of African American mountaineers to climb Denali in 2013, which is the 100-year anniversary of Denali being climbed. I don’t consider myself much of a mountaineer, but I’m thinking, "Denali? Sure!"
—interview by Lauren Pope / photos by Greg Epperson
Lauren Pope is an Editorial Intern for SIERRA magazine. She graduated from Chico State with an Environmental Journalism degree in 2011, though her family jokes she actually got her degree in boating. When she's not writing, she's rowing the rivers of the Southwest — the place where she grew up and will undoubtedly grow old.